Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard opens in Bedlam. Also known as the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the mentally ill, it houses artist Richard Dadd, who we learn in the book’s first paragraph is a murderer. A celebrated painter before and after his incarceration, Dadd is visited by novelist Charlotte Brontë, who is considering him as inspiration for a novel about social issues as she fumbles her way toward her next artistic project.
Dadd and Brontë are both historical figures, though they never actually met. Dadd is a distant relative of Krueger, a Toronto-based filmmaker and the author of several novels; her imagining of the two cultural figures briefly coming together forms the basis of Mad Richard, which alternates chapters between the events of Brontë’s life after meeting Dadd, and those of Dadd leading up to his placement in the asylum.
The stories of Brontë and Dadd are intertwined in the novel’s structure, though the characters’ paths never cross again. But Krueger suggests thematic resonances between their lives as working artists in Victorian England, using the opportunity to pose interesting questions about art, commerce, and class. Krueger’s research is evident in every paragraph: from the use of authentic slang to richly sketched portraits of the lives of the era’s rich and poor, the book confidently transports the reader to another time.
But the explication comes at a cost. While Mad Richard is pleasingly constructed at the sentence level, the urge to include so much detail slows the plot to a frustrating slog. If Krueger had felt less of a duty to historical accuracy and paid more attention to pacing, she could have cut plenty of extraneous scenes.
Krueger’s portrayal of Brontë’s romantic and artistic struggles is thought-provoking, but it could have been dramatized much more economically. For instance, a superfluous dream sequence takes up three paragraphs. And the book’s ending – which depicts the brutal act that gets Dadd committed – feels anti-climactic and unearned. His descent into madness has little foreshadowing or emotional preparation: in the final chapters, it simply happens.